My Summer Studentship Experience, by Nina Kerr
I initially applied for the RCAAE summer studentship for the 2018/19 season. I was not successful that time around so instead, I used that summer to experience the Victorian Alps for my first time, by working for an environmental contractor eradicating Hawkweed (Pilosella sp.) near Falls Creek. One benefit of staring at the ground all day is that you quickly become familiar with the shapes, colours and distributions of different plants even without knowing all their names. I was blown away by the diversity of plants and keen to learn more about alpine ecosystems. The following season I reapplied and was excited to be accepted into the RCAAE studentship for the 2019/20 season.
Before going, I had mentally prepared for some things I would experience during the weeks ahead: learning lots of new plant names, the volatile weather, long days, data entry and working solo at times. Something which I had not foreseen was the widespread and devastating bushfire season of Summer 2019/20. Little of Australia escaped impact from these bushfires and we were no different. At the start of the season it was uncertain whether we would be able to go at all. Luckily, Falls Creek escaped any physical impact and I was able to spend 7 weeks there on and off. However, several active fires surrounded the region at times and the smoke haze was an eery reminder of the reality of the situation. Other subalpine alpine areas were not so fortunate, and we were able to witness the impacts of the fires at Mt Buffalo. Clearly fires are becoming more frequent in this region and it is a real challenge for those managing and protecting the natural assets of the park.
An experience I was humbled to be a part of was helping resurvey long-term ecological monitoring plots. This took us to some amazing subalpine and alpine grasslands and snow patches from Falls Creek to Mt Bogong. One survey took us to the Mt Fainter grassland, where the wind and rain were so strong over the saddle it threatened to rip the data sheets from my clip board. Thankfully, these transects were efficient to reconstruct as the pegs were still standing and the bearings to locate them were true. For the last couple of transects the rain stopped, a little sun came through the clouds and we got some spectacular views.
After completing some of these long-term monitoring plots, I gained a serious appreciation for simple and robust methodology that can be repeated over decades. Although the humble stake is a common friend among ecologists, I was still impressed to see the red gum pegs standing in snow patches after 40 years, as the seasonal snow-pack has the force to drag down-slope any object sticking too far out of the ground.
It was easy to feel inspired up in the Alps. I met so many different people including researchers, land managers and other students who shared an abundance of knowledge and an incredible passion for understanding and conserving this complex landscape. Experiencing the process of research has got me excited for post-grad research with honours and I know I will be able to apply many lessons and practical skills I gained last summer.